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Hi. I feel that although I participate more these days in the blog, especially with the new conversation format we’ve been using, I don’t do enough for the blog yet. DTZ has, among other things, written several very well constructed, thought provoking essays. So I’ve decided to try my hand at one, focusing on a question that bothers me. I’ve been thinking a long time on this question. It is a question that occurred to me about a year ago, give or take, and has persisted until now. That question is on the anime Busou Renkin. The most recent complete work from Nobuhiro Watsuki, the manga writer best known for Rurouni Kenshin, BR is a fun romp through most of the basic concepts of shonen manga and anime, a cheery, amusing, but at the same time genuinely enjoyable experience.

And yet, as far as the public seems to be concerned, it is nothing. Axed by Weekly Shonen Jump early, it clocked only 10 volumes, a little over a third of Kenshin. Watsuki was forced to cut the story short, truncating the ending, although he did manage to actually create one. It barely comes up in mention, and the general feeling one gets when hearing about BR is that it is an inferior product. Its anime passed almost without comment, from what I could see, although I admit that I wasn’t as often looking through the blogging community at the time. So why did this happen? Why did a genuinely good series, by one of the best manga writers of our age, become such a pariah?

There are several answers, but to get to them, we will have to go further into the series, both BR and its famous predecessor. DTZ has spoken on this before, to a moderate extent, in his Shonen rant post. But that post was huge, with a wide range of topics, and I believe there is more to say on this single topic, which can say so much about anime fans and what their expectations seem to be

First, a Samurai.

Rurouni Kenshin was, for those few in the anime universe who do not already know, the story of the wandering swordsman, Himura Kenshin. Set a decade after the overthrow of the Shogunate, the series follows Kenshin, a warrior from the overthrow, as he lives in the new world. A man guiltridden over the many lives he was forced to take during the war, he has sworn both to never take another life, and to protect the innocent.

I won’t go too deeply into the series, because anything I say will be infinitely redundant on the thousands of words already written about this series. It is a breathtaking, thought provoking, and at the same time truly fun, series. Finding a superb mix between action, plot, and humor, it draws you in early, and doesn’t let you go until the very end. And I’m referring mostly to the manga here. The anime, which was riddled with severe Filler related problems, does not come into play, since it was even ended before the manga’s last, and most emotionally provoking, arc was aired. Two portions of the arc were animated as OVAs, one of them extremely well, one of them shoddy.

But anyways, what does Kenshin have? Well, just about everything that a shonen series needs to be good. The characters are well developed, even the minor villains and comic relief characters, both normally banes of the “faceless, plotless, personalityless” set. Watsuki’s art is clean, crisp, and for once, easy to follow in action. Many shonen manga that I read are often cluttered in action sequences, requiring several reads to place exactly what occured.

But more than anything, Kenshin was popular. In Japan, it resonated on a period of history that seems to hold a fascination with the population, based on the heavy amount of work that often comes up. The manga unabashedly used real historical figures, and even rewrote a few pieces of the past, in order to match the story, a brave prospect. In the United States, instead, fans popped up over the unusual nature of it all.

After all, Kenshin is a subversion. Unlike most title characters, Kenshin himself is not a new fighter, a low level flunky or something trying to make his way (mostly im looking at Naruto here). The show is almost bereft of training sequences and power ups for him, with one notable exception. The other characters in the main group, or at least some of them, go through their own training, but it doesn’t drive the story in the same way that the basic shonen, such as Dragon Ball, might. Kenshin is a top level fighter from the start, a deadly and skilled swordsman who only ever struggles because he faces foes that are no less than superhuman at times. Oh, and he deliberatly cripples himself with his famous reverse blade sword, making fights that would, in a normal situation, be over in seconds, take much longer, due to his strikes not being killing ones.

Well written, expertly plotted, story tracked from element to element with little variance (although Watsuki is prone to fast rewriting of materials, he is also VERY good at tying it all together), and a dramatic, sweeping story that at the same time goes deep into the minds of the smallest people, is it surprising that Kenshin was so popular?

Next, a Butterfly Man

So from one perspective, the public’s failure to latch on to Busou Renkin was perhaps inevitable. Even before it began, it suffered from Expectation Syndrome. To put it simply, as the next series from a man who had as many fans as Watsuki did at this point, BR was expected to follow in Kenshin’s footsteps from the start.

But instead, they got something they didn’t expect. Busou Renkin is, above all else, lighthearted. The story of a boy who happens to fall into a world of monsters by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, BR is a fun, absurd romp. The villains are over the top, and in one case, the butterfly man Papillon, right through the roof in their absurdity and campiness. The main character is a bit of a loon, an overearnest guy who is as thick headed as the standard shonen hero, with odd forays into delusions as well. “I am a master at drawing faces!”, for example.

One of the things people never realized until it was too late, is that Watsuki WANTED a lighter series, in so many ways. Kenshin was clearly a draining, exhausting work for him, if only from the liner notes the published volumes have from him. Too often he is prone to self disgust in them, disappointed in how he failed to do this or that, or how a character was underused.

After such an intense work, is it really any surprise that Watsuki’s next series was deliberatly fun? And let me tell you, he obviously had fun. A crescent headed villain named Lunar Nicholai who divided into 30 bodies that represented the moon’s phases? A mentor who called himself Captain Bravo, who based half his actions on them being “cool”? And Papillon. Oh lord, Papillon. An analysis of the absurdities of this villain/rival could be an article on its own, so I’ll leave it to a quote/anecdote in Watsuki’s own notes. When he was making Papillon, he thought about making the first fight with him have the villain wearing only a speedo. He thought that, being a superhuman, the character would want to show off or something. But he wasn’t certain, so he asked someone else for an opinion. And what the person said to him was “if you think its a fun idea, go with it.” Quote probably not exact…or in the right language, ^_^.

But that became his theme, as has been noted before. He designed the rest of the series around that concept, creating wonderfully absurd character after character, enjoying himself. Somewhere, fans might have enjoyed this right off the bat, but I get the feeling that the initial reaction was far less positive. And unfortunately for Watsuki, his concepts held a certain coincidental (he doesnt read modern manga) resemblance to other popular series, particularly Bleach. This was damning, and the series slowly fell into disinterest, before being axed by the weekly magazine, necessitating its rushed end. A quietly held opinion among readers, which I seem to recall even voiced on Anime News Network,(though I wouldn’t know where to find that again), was that Watsuki had disappointed by making such a fiercly generic series. He was obviously capable of more, people said, so why didn’t he make it?

Lance Vs. Sword

However, I believe that everything I just said people thought….is false. Busou Renkin is EXACTLY the sort of series that Watsuki makes, it just takes this long for people to realize it. Let me explain.

If you take a look at Busou, after all, it isn’t just generic. It is a distillation of all the cliches and popular concepts that drive shonen manga. An idiot type hero with a pure heart, special powers, training, and so forth. But it is never tired. The characters are fresh, funny, and believable. Much like Kenshin, almost every character has motivation beyond what you first expect. The absurd butterfly man is fighting a sense of inferiority and a meaningless self, so he easily retreats into excess. The mentor also is hiding, from a past guilt over his weakness by mercilessly training, and hiding his pain behind a cheery facade in order to not worry those around him. The villainous seeming secret society of warriors is fighting to protect the world from evil, yes, but their darker actions come from a lack of awareness of their own past. The terrifying monstrous big bad Victor is a heartbroken man who had his world stripped away because of things against his control, and was forced to see his family destroyed in front of him entirely due to his actions, although never at his will or choice, driving him almost insane.

Kazuki himself, the main of BR, is a simple enough character. But at the same time, he is honest and REALISTIC. He is not perfect, and occasionally suffers for it. But he has a strong sense of justice and a need to protect those around him, even to the point of self defeating hypocrisy.

But it is also a subversion of a series. DTZ went into this before, on the basic shonen Power Up, so I’ll be brief. Watsuki took an editor’s suggestion to include the basic powering up of shonen series and subverted it, turning it into a dangerous, destructive force that is so much greater a curse than a blessing (yeah, we really feel bad for Ichigo from Bleach when he uses his hollow mask to kick ass these days, don’t we?) that very quickly Kazuki entirely rejects it, risking a very real chance of death by refusing the advantage because of the damage it would do to those around him.

All this is well and good, and an argument for Busou Renkin. But theres another angle that most people almost never realize. Busou is NOT AT ALL DIFFERENT FROM KENSHIN!

Allow me to explain. Watsuki is a genius, but an insane one. He takes bizarre concepts all the time and molds them into his stories. For example, looking at an assortment of the less major character from both series, and it is not at all hard to realize his major inspiration. Marvel Comics. From Kenshin character Jin-E, who is apparently the twin of X-men character Gambit, to the major group battle of the last arc, Jinchuu, in which we see obvious pastiches of Apocalypse, Mr Sinister, and Venom, you realize that Watsuki has deep influence from unexpected sources.

But this is only artwork, it doesn’t scratch at the surface of a shocking truth: Kenshin is not nearly as serious as people believe. Oh, don’t accuse me of disliking Kenshin, because that’s not true. And it cannot be questioned that the main character himself is certainly very serious, and well written. But look past that. In this series, half purported to be a historical drama, you have characters larger than life. People who can freeze others with a glance, 20 foot tall giants, the power to cause explosions with fists. Rurouni Kenshin is consummatly a shonen series in every sense of the word. People would do well to recall that one of Watsuki’s key assistants during a majority of Kenshin’s run was a Eiichiro Oda, best known for the completely absurd One Piece.

The characters are mostly silly too. Kenshin himself is an extremely powerful swordsman…who is prone to making a fool of himself for very little reason, although he does stay within character and skill. Of the secondary characters, Sano is a loud twit in many senses, a punk of a street fighter who literally prefers fighting to relax and is constantly the butt of jokes of the more serious ones. Even though he never loses all his dignity, as a comic relief character he is often very jarring.

The villains are entirely over the top. In order, we have the aforementioned Gambit, a group of ninja, a large scary man who actually had no real skill in fighting other than some techniques and brute force, a group of ten enemies including a boy who moved so fast they might as well have called him Nightcrawler, a giant, an okama with a scythe(and yes it was made entirely for the kama/okama pun), led by a bandaged lunatic who somehow used fire in sword techniques and on one point tried to EAT someone, and a group of revenge crazed psychos led by a selfish brat with a sister complex bordering on Oedipalism.

It sounds absurd when you hear it stripped away. And stripped away is how I have witnessed Busou described, over and over again. And I believe this is wrong. If you want to strip away shows like that, then we can just take Gurren Lagann and call it a Gainax robot show, and save ourselves the time of watching a second Evangelion. Or perhaps instead we can look at Haruhi as a basic School Life show with unusual elements, and instead go off and watch Azumanga Daioh, or maybe a harem type series. My point here is this: No series should be judged on the bare bones. Yet that is all that Busou Renkin, a series with an incredible pedigree, gets. It was dismissed on the first episode by multiple people I read opinions from as a Bleach ripoff, a dull, uninspired shonen retread. But it isn’t. No more than Kenshin is Dragon Ball with swords.

One series is the distillation of all the best parts of shonen. The other is shonen concentrated and polished to a shine. Busou Renkin is a perfect series for pure fun, and if you turn it aside as generic without even giving it a real chance, well, I feel bad for you. And thats really all there is to it. The two series share the thread of Watsuki being an evil mad genius, so why does one get a pass and the other doesn’t? I swear, if anyone suggests its because Kenshin is a bishonen, I will go seriously Onikakushi on them (I even have a blunt instrument ready. Just try me).